When I first heard about Ready Player One, it seemed like a book that would be right up my alley. As someone who writes about video game history in the 1960s-1985, an avid gamer, and an aficionado and fan of 1980s pop culture, this book seemed tailor made for me.
Then I read it.
Spoilers below for Ready Player One
The book starts off exceedingly well–it has great characterization, world building, and a lot of fun nods towards the things that I really enjoy. I got the references, and I was having a lot of fun. I realized that since this was a dystopian novel, things wouldn’t be perfect. I was entirely with the book and enjoying myself until Wade finds the first key. Then things start getting really, really dicey.
I’ll get the minor complaints out of the way first. the pandering becomes almost intolerable. The fact that the black market information site is called “L33t Hax0rz Warezhaus” made me face palm so hard that I may have gotten minor whiplash. It’s the internet. People name stuff ridiculous things. I’m just not inclined to think that when the entire world becomes wired into a video game simulation, they’re going to be idiotic enough to name their black market eBay something as stupid as leetspeak.
Second, I completely understand that our hero is an 18 year old virgin. I get that. Including a detailed section about his purchasing of a sex doll and all the shame and joy he got from that was a little unnecessary. This may just be personal preference, but it sort of played into the lonely virgin gamer stereotype, but it also was just too much information on a character to know that he has super fun times with his lubed up sex doll, feels ashamed, then disposes of her.
Which brings me to my major sticking point of why I hated this book: the gamer stereotypes and the “dangers” of playing video games. For a book that seems so set on pandering to and celebrating nerd culture of the 1980s, it still has the tired theme of “but video games are dangerous/not a healthy hobby/no substitute/go outside and find love, you nerd.” This rubbed me the wrong way. As someone who has gamed their entire life, and as someone who suffers from multiple anxiety disorders and treatment resistive/major depression, video games are my way of dealing with them. They’re my entertainment and my therapy. I get extremely angry when I hear the same tired thing over and over about how terrible video games are for you, how you need to meet people, go outside, exercise, etc.
Reading nearly 400 pages and ending on a note of “now that I found love, I don’t want to login” and a preachy final message of “I substituted games for the real world, and don’t you make the same mistake, kiddo” rubbed me entirely the wrong way. It felt like a betrayal to write this essentially huge love story to the culture then bring up the same tired trope of it being a dangerous anti-social escape method that can ruin lives/affect chances at romance/etc.
It’s part of why I am strangely mystified that so many people that self identify as nerds or gamers are really into this book. Many also dislike this trope/critique, and yet actively endorse this book that has a finale that plays out in that exact way. There are many, many things you could critique gaming culture for, and many of them are valid. However, I think it is time that we move away from the stereotype of lonely, virginal, anti-social nerds who ruin their lives playing video games, and especially where the hero of the book is exactly the type of guy many of us would be rooting for. He won because he was GOOD at what he did, and he was passionate about it. He won because this was a culture he loved and embraced. To have him actively walk away because the programmer told him “go outside” and “don’t let love pass you because you’re gaming” when HE MET HER THROUGH THE GAME felt like a huge, weak cop out.
I wanted to like this book. I really did. I just can’t when the author is both trying to pander to my interests to sell his book and spit on them at the exact same time.